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Badge of Dishonor

Throughout her 24-year tenure as a police officer with the Village of North Palm Beach, Lt. Cynthia Hawes has heard dozens of accounts and read as many reports alleging that the force's top-level officers have repeatedly committed sordid and potentially criminal acts. More recently, in sworn, tape-recorded testimony, Hawes herself accused men who are still on the force of calling her a "hole," and warning her not to paint her office like a "two-bit whorehouse." She also testified that a male sergeant still on the force once kept in his office a shoebox filled with sexually explicit photographs of female crime victims. Other current and former police officers have seen it.

These accusations -- along with a dozen accounts of police brutality against civilians and police officers, statutory rape, and assorted errors in police procedure -- were investigated in 1996 by the internal affairs division of the Palm Beach County Sheriff's Office at the request of the North Palm Beach village manager. But the resulting report was vague and often contradictory. It came to few conclusions and led to little action from either the chief of police or the village manager, both of whom were named in the allegations. Today both men claim they don't have a copy of the report.

The accusations endure nonetheless.
About two months ago, the omnipresent charges came to a head again when the Florida Department of Law Enforcement (FDLE) began an official investigation of certain members of the North Palm Beach Public Safety Department. FDLE Special Agent Rick Caplano declined to specify the details of the inquiry beyond saying that the sheriff's office report is one component of a much larger criminal investigation.

Oddly, neither chief of police Bruce Sekeres nor village manager Dennis Kelly is well versed in the content of that report. Sekeres said he could not remember what many of the allegations were. Nonetheless he and the village manager believe all charges have been "investigated thoroughly." Sekeres, who has been chief for the past ten years, said they are satisfied that the inquiry was "concluded and resolved." He commented without much concern that he thought the FDLE might be reviewing the sheriff's office report. "They were at one point asking about the investigation," he said casually.

Kelly dismissed all of Hawes' more than 45 allegations of sexual harassment -- which included being called a "fat-ass bitch" by another lieutenant -- because he said she did not comply with bureaucratic procedure in filing a complaint. Hawes declined to comment for this article.

Although Kelly claims to have listened to the fourteen audiotapes of investigation interviews, he said he could not recall anything about a shoebox filled with explicit photographs or anything about another particularly unseemly allegation reviewed by the sheriff's internal affairs department -- that a police officer who is still on the staff had sexual relations with a minor.

Kelly's ignorance is especially curious considering it was he who requested the investigation in 1996 in response to numerous accusations by a North Palm Beach police officer. That officer, Richard Steinberg, worked in the department for more than two years until his 1996 resignation. Now the 25-year-old former Marine and military police officer sells luxury automobiles in West Palm Beach.

Steinberg stumbled upon the problems in the department one day in 1996 while he was complaining to a colleague about a minor work-related problem. In the course of that conversation, the colleague mentioned that several other officers had complained of harassment in the past few years. Steinberg began examining some of these grievances and claims he found that most of them were leveled against top-level police officers. Other officers, meanwhile, began volunteering information to him. Within a two-month period in 1996, Steinberg says about ten of the village's thirty-odd police officers informed him of various breaches of police procedure and possible criminal activity within the force.

When the complaints were brought to the Palm Beach County Sheriff's Office, its internal affairs investigator, Margaret Picerno, examined fourteen cases in all. Her assignment, she said, was to find facts and make conclusions whenever possible. Disciplinary action and follow-ups to the investigation were at the village's discretion. Picerno reached no conclusion in about half of the cases. In others she found police officers guilty of relatively minor procedural violations. The chief and the village manager took action on only one issue: An officer who investigated a crime while in civilian clothes received a written reprimand.

Picerno came to no conclusion on the allegation that Sekeres drove an arrested man to his father's Singer Island wedding before bringing the man to the Palm Beach County Jail in 1994. She also came to no conclusion in her review of an allegation that North Palm Beach police Lt. Clay Walker has had sexual relationships with minors volunteering in a department-run program. She questioned only one possible witness in her review, the former North Palm Beach police officer who ran the program for high-school students interested in police work. The former officer agreed to help in any way he could, but when Picerno tried calling him again a month later, she found that his line was inoperative. So she concluded her inquiry. It shouldn't have been so difficult to reach the man. His phone number is listed in the report. And it works to this day.

Picerno's report also offered contradictory evidence in her review of complaints from Kelly Simpson, nee Riley, a former North Palm Beach police officer. Simpson testified that Walker shoved her against a door after a heated argument in his office in the late '80s. At the end of the interview, Picerno asked Simpson if she wanted her complaints to be examined further. "Yes," Simpson replied emphatically, according to audiotapes of the interview. "If this can be pursued, pursue it for the guys who are on the road who do not deserve that treatment.... These officers -- if Clay Walker and Bruce Sekeres are still acting in the same manner -- those officers deserve a break." Picerno's conclusion: "Ms. Riley did not wish to pursue a complaint against Lieutenant Walker."

Walker, a nineteen-year North Palm Beach police veteran, denied any wrongdoing and said he thinks accusations originated from former and current police officers intent on embarrassing him and the agency. "I think they come from the fact that there are some people who are unhappy with me as a supervisor," he said.

Walker's attorney, Preston Fields, said his client has done nothing improper. Fields said the same of Detective Sgt. Ralph Pauldine, who is also a client, and was accused in the internal affairs investigation of once keeping a shoebox filled with sexually explicit photographs. (Although Picerno never interviewed Pauldine in her review, she determined that no misconduct existed.)

Fields also noted that he and his clients are considering legal action against former and current North Palm Beach police officers who they believe are spreading false accusations. Once his clients' names are cleared, he said, the people spreading these stories will be responsible, "and they're the ones who are going to pay for it."

In fact, with the gravity of the complaints and the striking ambiguity of some of Picerno's conclusions, it will now be up to the FDLE to determine the veracity of the allegations.

It could take several months for details to materialize from that investigation. FDLE agents keep mum until inquiries are completed, and, like Hawes, most current officers are reluctant to discuss openly their complaints for fear of retaliation. "The public hardly even knows about it," said one veteran officer who asked to remain anonymous. "We're here to serve these people, and we can't serve them right because we're too scared." The officer added, "I just hate coming to work anymore. That's true for anyone who's been here for more than a couple of years."

Dave Loonan, a North Palm Beach police officer and the representative to the Palm Beach County Police Benevolent Association, focused the issue more pointedly: "When you've got corruption in the top level, it lowers morale. Cops get bad attitudes, and who do they take it out on? The public.

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Michael Freedman

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